The Problem of “Net Negatives”
We turn here to a decidedly downbeat topic.
Sadly but inevitably, every society includes some people who are going to produce, over their remaining lifetimes, less in goods and services than they will consume: Their overall future contribution to the society and the nation is a net negative. Every society is faced with the question of how to deal with its social “net negatives.”
People may become “net negative” for a number of reasons, including age, accidents, chronic illness or simply bad luck. Others may become net negative as a consequence of their own past criminal acts or their disposition to commit crimes in the future. Whatever the reason people become net negative, however, there is one thing they all share in common: If the difference between what they consume and produce is to be made up, it will have to be at the expense of people who are social “net positives”—those whose future production of goods and services is greater than their future consumption.
In America today many net negatives have a right to be taken care of because they have contracted for it.. These include the elderly with pensions and the chronically ill who have health and disability insurance. Many other net negatives will be taken care of by net positives who, on a voluntary basis, take responsibility for their own loved ones and family members or who donate funds for charities. Indeed, it is probably imprecise to see people taken care of in these ways as being “net negatives” at all.
There is still, however, a residuum of net negatives (probably numbering in the millions) who do not have these means of support. They are people who would be destitute and unable to subsist unless government takes money and resources away from others in order to provide subsidies and sustenance. And whether or not these net negatives are provided with subsidies as such, they will be a burden, one way or another, on the liberty and quality of life of other people in the society. They never simply “go away.”
TAKING LIBERTY SERIOUSLY does not specify any single “right ” way to deal with the problem of net negatives. What TAKING LIBERTY SERIOUSLY would require is that our governmental processes:
Here’s the point: If government is going to do anything at all about the net negatives among us, its response will almost inevitably require some trade-off of personal liberty. We would not be TAKING LIBERTY SERIOUSLY if we ignore this bedrock fact. There may be a broad consensus among net positives to trade off a degree of liberty (their own and others’) in exchange for better or decent treatment of net negatives. But it would not be TAKING LIBERTY SERIOUSLY if government sets the trade-off without an honest acknowledgement that it is doing exactly that.
There may be many good reasons why rational people would be willing to trade off some liberty, especially in spending decisions, in order to address the problem of net negatives. In the first place, it usually hard fto tell at a given point in time if a person actually is a net negative. In many if not the majority of cases, people may well turn out to be net-positives if they are just helped to get past a rough patch in life.
Beyond that, to have the kind of public environment and society that the vast majority of people want, some provision has to be made to deal with those who might otherwise be living and dying in our nation’s streets and parks. Once again, these who cannot provide for themselves do not just “go away.” Whether or not the government deals with them, there is a cost—in crime, disorder and overall quality of life. (Note)
It is, however, a mistake to think that those who are made to subsidize net negatives by the pure force of law will not notice the impingement on their liberty. Enormous and understandable resentments result when people’s aspirations for liberty are shunted aside by a governmental focus that seems to care only about the neediness of others.
There is. however, no reason to assume that programs to benefit net negatives would always necessarily fail the test of strict scrutiny, which should apply to protect liberty. It is not hard to visualize the compelling governmental interest in many such programs, and the programs that result may be tempered and even improved by the strict-scrutiny requirement of narrow tailoring. In any case, TAKING LIBERTY SERIOUSLY in the land of the free requires that we do no less.